While more than two dozen states and 150 cities have adopted initiatives to give people with criminal records a fair shot at employment, that doesn't mean those who were formally incarcerated won't have to eventually address the issue in an interview or explain why they have an employment gap on their resume.
PrisonPolicy.org estimates that the unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated is about 27 percent, which is higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including during the Great Depression. As a result of such a high percentage, legislation collectively known as "Ban the Box" prevents employers from asking about a job seeker's criminal past until a conditional offer has been made. It also restricts how far back an employer can dig into an applicant’s criminal history.
Still, that doesn't mean that employers might not presume that a job seeker's employment gap is due to serving prison time, says Jon Ponder, founder and CEO of Hope for Prisoners, which offers training and mentorship programs for former inmates.
"There's been some conversation nationally that Ban the Box has had some collateral consequences in that some employers are just assuming someone has been incarcerated," Ponder says. "So that's why we encourage full disclosure (by former inmates) on the first interview. Be honest about it."
When to disclose your criminal history
Ponder says a good time to offer information about a criminal past is when a job interviewer asks: "Do you have any questions?"
Ponder says that the applicant can then say something like, "In 1992, I committed a crime. I served my time, but while I was in prison, I used every waking moment to address the issues surrounding the circumstances that led to that arrest. I learned valuable lessons from those mistakes that I made. I've armed myself against it ever happening again. Shall we proceed?"
Ponder and other experts say the key for those with criminal pasts is to not only be honest about their background but also to learn how to fill out a job application properly and make a good impression in an interview so that they can compete with other job seekers.
Among the other advice:
- Highlight your transferable skills. "I don't care what prison you have been in, you have worked. You have value because of that," Ponder says. "You didn't just serve 10 years. You buffed floors for 10 years. You worked in supply for the commissary." If you received specialized training while in prison, be sure to list it on a resume, such as "small-business training." At the same time, omit unrelated, outdated experience.
- Write a cover letter. While an employer might not require one, always do your best to submit a cover letter whenever possible. This letter can highlight your interest in the employer or the job and prove you've done your homework.
For example, you can mention in your cover letter that you love animals, which is why you want to work in a veterinarian's office. Or, write about how much you appreciate the employer's community outreach programs that help the disadvantaged and that you want to be a part of it.
- Ask for help. Former inmate Kory Crossman, who has been employed full-time for eight months after getting out of prison nine months ago, says that the secret to his success at Civil Werx, a general contracting company in Las Vegas, is that he gets so much support and training from Hope for Prisoners.
As the purchasing and small-equipment manager, he says about the job, "I've learned by the seat of my pants," but he believes the coaching and training he received on how to write a resume, fill out an application and what to say in a job interview were critical to his success.
"They even teach you how important it is to smile," he says. His advice to those in a similar position: "Really try to find someplace in your community that offers job search help."
- Don't lie. The hiring manager's job is to ask questions that will help him or her learn more about your education, training and experience, and how you can benefit the organization. The fastest way to get eliminated is to lie about your credentials because a hiring manager will check the facts on your application or resume.
Also, it’s critical to be honest about your history when the time comes. A survey by Global HR Research found that 96 percent of employers do at least one form of background check. This could include checking motor vehicle records, taking fingerprints, running credit checks or searching national criminal databases.
"Be honest," Crossman says. "No matter how ugly the truth is, you have to respect it and own it."
- Demonstrate positive body language. It's normal for job seekers to be nervous during job interviews, but practicing deep breathing and preparing beforehand for an interview can help eliminate some of your anxiety. Make sure your body language is positive: sit up straight; make direct eye contact; offer a firm handshake and a smile; answer questions clearly instead of nodding or shrugging; and rest your hands in your lap or on the arms of the chair during the interview.
- Believe in your worth. "Focus on what you're good at. Everyone has something that they're good at. For me, my greatest asset is my attention to detail and my determination not to fail," Crossman says. "Be positive and sell yourself."
- Focus on the future. The U.S. Department of Labor's CareerOneStop recommends that ex-offenders focus on the training or education they're involved with, and any participation in community activities. "Talk about your career goals, how you chose them, and how the job you are applying for fits them," the organization advises.
"For anyone recently released, you may think there is nothing out there," Crossman says. "I assure you, there is. Work harder. Call and find a support group. Surround yourself with positive people."